It was a night to test the durability of the extremities and, also, the strength of Arsenal’s mini-revival. It does not seem so long ago that they were mired in that gruesome slump, unable to buy a victory or even, seemingly, a goal.
The statistics showed they had scored just four in 10 Premier League games up to the defeat at Everton on 19 December but at kick-off here, they could reflect on eight in the previous three – all of them victories.
Arsenal being Arsenal, they duly punctured the mood of cautious optimism by playing out a scoreless draw and the truth was that it could have been worse if Crystal Palace – and in particular, Christian Benteke – had been able to locate a cutting edge in front of goal.
Palace, who hit the crossbar through James Tomkins at the end of the first-half, will take a point that keeps them on the heels of Arsenal in mid-table. But for evidence of Arsenal’s frustration, look no further than the 84th-minute flashpoint when the manager, Mikel Arteta, stepped on to the field to tackle Andros Townsend after Joel Ward had fouled the substitute, Eddie Nketiah.
Palace’s lineup bristled with attacking threat and it was notable that Roy Hodgson started with Wilfried Zaha up front alongside Benteke in a 4-4-2 formation. That said, Zaha’s license to roam was pronounced. He was nominally Rob Holding’s man but Arsenal’s midfielders had to be alive.
The visitors were bright in the first half and unlucky not to lead at the end of it. Eberechi Eze glided with intent off the left, Benteke took up good positions and Zaha was at the heart of virtually everything.
The forward’s battle with Granit Xhaka was a prominent subplot, as the former tried to dodge the latter’s full-blooded challenges. Zaha was lucky to draw an extremely inviting free-kick on the edge of the area after minimal contact from Xhaka in the 14th minute, although Eze’s subsequent effort was badly off target.
His best moment of first half saw him stopped in his tracks inside the area by the Swiss midfielder. Zaha had swapped clever passes with his strike partner and sliced past two Arsenal challenges; he could not escape the third.
But that was not Palace’s best moment of the period. Far from it. They thought that they had the lead on 39 minutes when James Tomkins got above Holding to meet an Eze free-kick only for his header to come back off the crossbar.
Minutes later, Tyrick Mitchell crossed from the left for Benteke, whose header drew a flying save from Bernd Leno. Palace could also point to the moment in the 29th minute when Mitchell cut back and Benteke, leaning back, lifted wastefully high.
Arsenal tried to play through Emile Smith Rowe and the No 10 had some nice touches, none better than the low cross from the right which he intended for Alexandre Lacazette. Smith Rowe had been picked out by Xhaka but, with Lacazette shaping to shoot, his teammate, Héctor Bellerín, arrived to nudge the ball away from him and to nobody in particular.
It was a good example of Arsenal’s lack of cohesion before the break. They got into some decent positions but the final action was usually missing. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang cut in from the left and shot straight at Vicente Guaita, who parried up into the air before grabbing at the second attempt, while Bukayo Saka shot tamely at the goalkeeper.
Arteta had not wanted to risk Kieran Tierney because of tightness in a muscle – a big miss, given the left-back’s fine form of late – and they did not look as threatening down that side. Aubameyang worked as a wide forward off it and he flitted in and out of the game.
It was also indicative of Arsenal’s recent confidence that Arteta decided not to rush back Thomas Partey, who was available after a thigh injury. On Partey’s previous comeback, at Spurs in December, the manager had started him and seen him last only 45 minutes. This time, the key midfielder was held back until the 70th minute.
Arsenal were strangely tentative for long spells in the first half, making a number of errors on the ball, but they began the second period at a higher tempo. They pressed on to the front foot, pushing Palace back, with Bellerín eager to get high up the right flank from full-back. Tierney’s replacement, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, did likewise until his withdrawal for Nicolas Pépé, and both he and Bellerín had chances in the second-half.
Arteta’s introduction of Pépé, which saw Saka switch from right wing to left-back, showed his determination to push for the win but it allowed Palace to feel that they could threaten on the counter. They went close when Benteke released Zaha only for Xhaka to cut out the winger’s cross which had been aimed for the centre-forward. From the ensuing corner, Benteke ought to have done better with his header.